Romania

Dear T,

When I went to Romania in the late 1990's I was in eighth grade, and it was the first time in my life I was away from my parents in another country.  I was part of a youth group called Club Beyond, a Christian outreach program for kids in military families deployed all over the globe.  I was actually too young to go, being in eighth grade, but the club leadership had decided I was well-behaved for my age, so I went to all the fundraisers and packed up my duffel bag and jumped in a bus with a bunch of random Navy brats.

Leaving Italy was the first challenge.  First of all my mom had been worried about giving her eighth grader a passport, so she kept it at home in Naples and sent me with a photocopy -- a mistake, it turned out, because the people patrolling the (if I remember correctly) Slovenian border held up the whole bus until we could get a hold of the American consulate at six in the morning.  A miserable, embarrassing affair which left me with a hatred of crossing borders and set the tone of the trip for me -- already an outsider due to my age (I was a year ahead of my grade) and my awkwardness.

It must have been winter, because it was cold and when we finally got to Romania I remember a lot of browns and grays.  Not that this was all God's fault.  The buildings were plain and concrete looking and generally ugly, a result (I was told) of Romania's communist history, and the regime they had only recently thrown over.  The one shopping center we went to was drab and had little of anything interesting (I remember hearing about a McDonalds, but I don't remember going to one), and when we got to our final destination things got worse.  

A giant concrete box with filthy single-pane windows and a bare courtyard was our home for a week.  I don't remember exactly what it was used for when we weren't there, but they had a lot of empty, freezing rooms for us to use, full of bare walls and bugs and worn-out mattresses which had been pissed on a few dozen times and left out to dry.  The food was a kind of gruel we choked down every morning and stale bread and salami later in the day.  The less we ate there the better.  We were impoverished for a bit, but the people we came for were worse off.

Our target audience was in a youth prison.  I was told we were going there to build them a playground and other such things, but I was never assigned to a building crew (probably safer for them), and I figure most people couldn't be.  There were too many of us and too little work to do.  But despite this we had little free time, and got up early and attended some sort of a daily church service, and met in small groups, and went into the prison to try and save and interact with the locals.  Lots of shaved heads and crew neck sweaters, which was actually how teenagers dressed in Italy anyway.  I was never completely convinced whether the mission trip was for them or for me.  Maybe it was both.  I don't remember feeling like I did much for anybody. 

We tried to talk to the boys in jail, but the language barrier was difficult, and the translators did the best they could.  The boys I talked to said they were innocent, which I now know they all say in prison; but I was told by my group leader that they actually could be.  Word had spread around the youth group that Romania had a 100% conviction rate, and that if a crime was committed, someone would pay the price for it.  This meant that if somebody ran somebody over and drove off and you were there for it they would put you in jail for manslaughter or God-knows-what-else -- a story which I didn't fully believe, which I still have a hard time believing, and which I tell now only because everybody repeated it.  If it's not true, it's a reminder of the days when word-of-mouth was the main source of information, and if we heard fewer outright lies, the chance of squelching them, especially on the obscurer subjects, was next to zero.   If the story about Romanian law is true, it's proof that "justice," even in a so-called "liberated" country, can mean wildly different things to different people.  Still, I believe most people would find the policy disturbing.  As Rochefoucald says, more people are more worried about suffering an injustice than being just*.

It was surprising how similar all the prisoners looked to me.  Even ignoring the fact that America is racially diverse, we're such a blend of white nations that whites can look incredibly different from each other.  Romanians all looked nearly the same to me, and had a national flavor about them -- even more than the Italians.  There was one kind boy about my age in the prison named Octi, which I assume was shorthand Romanian for Octavius.  I spent the most time with him and we gravitated towards each other, and I always remember him because he gave me his email and he never got mine, and I promised to write him and I never did.  I had many chances to but couldn't bring myself to do it.  First of all I couldn't think of what to say.  But second I didn't know what I could do for him.  I've felt guilty about not writing him for these twenty-plus years now, not just as a human being, but as an American.  This was probably his first time meeting one of us, and I turned out to be a liar.  A pretty bad ambassador's career, especially for one who claimed to be from the Kingdom of Heaven**.  

Speaking of the Kingdom, there was more trouble from the youth group than from the convicts.  There was one girl named Jean who was sent home early for groping a black baseball player dubbed T-Rex.  And there was a boy who was obsessed with Nine Inch Nails -- which I knew because he kept drawing "NIN" everywhere, which had to cause a few eye-rolls and frowns from the leadership.  But the worst of them all was a tall, fat boy whose name I can't remember, who would shove me around, call me names, and even went so far as to throw a bucket of paint on me.  He was never disciplined because I never told on him, and when it came time for prayer group and everyone was doing the usual confessing about lust, I was the only deviant in the group who broke the trend, and said I wanted to push a bully out a window.  They asked me if I ever wanted to shoot people, and I didn't, so they left the matter alone.  We were surrounded by horndogs, and it was more efficient to deal with them.

When the time came for us to leave I remember boarding at a train station and that we were heading to all different parts of Europe.  I saw the bully there for the last time, and I remember having some strong Christian urge to say something to him.  So I walked up and looked him right in the eye and smiled without mentioning anything else and said sincerely, I forgive you.  I shook his hand and never saw eyes like that in my life.  He was actually hurt.  I don't know what was going through his head at the time, but he nodded at me silently, and I remember walking off and being totally confused by the matter.  He probably remembers me to this day and can't do anything about it.  So we both left feeling like scoundrels.  I imagine everyone has an Octi.

The ride back, when we finally got back on buses, was a welcome relief aside from a few idiots beat-boxing, and the passport issue ended nicely thanks to the laziness of the Italians.  I remember getting to the final border crossing and crossing my fingers and my heart rate going up and seeing the guard step on, peek his head in and quickly look us all over, and when it was done asking if the Romanian girls were hot.  I don't remember being enamored with any or even if I saw any anywhere other than an hour at the shopping center, but we all gave him a thumbs up, he stepped off the bus without a care in the world, and we went back on to Naples.

I don't know what we accomplished for the Romanians, or if the trip had the intended effect on all of us, or whether anybody was converted.  But I haven't supported a mission trip since, and when I did send my money to missionaries, I made sure they were stuck with the locals, and didn't have the option to not write.  

Yours,
-J         

The Emperor Haile Selassie
*Romania's policy, if it really existed, was rivaled in insanity by several of Ethiopia's, one of which was the cutting off of hands and legs for minor offenses.  The second was that if someone committed murder, he would have to be disemboweled, in public, by his closest family member.  Finally there was the banning of what they called lebasha, a method for "discovering" thieves.  In this method a medicine man would find a small boy, get him high on drugs, and send him into a house.  When the boy entered the house he would point someone out, and whoever he pointed out would have his arms and legs cut off immediately -- a practice which could strike anyone at any time.  All three of these practices were banned by the emperor Haile Selassie. 

Haile was in many respects a forward-thinking and just person.  He gave Ethiopia a constitution and a national bank, and their first newspaper, and electricity, banned iron chains and stocks from prisons, reduced capital punishment to death by firing squad, and got rid of the slave trade, all by the early year of 1950.  But he had a nasty habit for promoting the most slimy, sycophantic bunglers into power, and made the worst mistake possible for his situation -- sending high-born Ethiopians to Western schools.  

The Ethiopians educated in our colleges got wowed by Western law and order, wealth and equality, free speech and other rights, came back with a haughty attitude and a bunch of left-wing university ideas, were embarrassed for their country and its incompetent bureaucracy, and instead of being grateful for what Haile did do, immediately turned on him -- a story which can be read in Ryszard Kapuscinski's The Emperor: Downfall of an Aristocrat.   He was overthrown by Marxists in 1974, and murdered the  year after that.

**Can we judge God by His followers?  In almost every circumstance no; but in Christianity, where people claim to be indwelt and moved by God Himself, where the office of ambassador extends to every practicing Christian, where we are supposed to radiate His goodness and wisdom and beauty and justice and mercy -- an office more important than the CEO of Amazon or the President of the United States of America -- maybe.  

I admit this office broke me.  It was impossible to live as Christ's representative on earth every second of every day, and to be His likeness, to claim dominion in His name wherever you walk.  But is there a better option?  On the one hand, the burden can crush you.  On the other, you get rid of the gravity of the situation, the weight of the whole universe, and you're left floating airless in the void.  The job is worth the wages.  And I refuse to believe that if Christianity is true it's not our job.  

I've only known one man in my life who took the office of Christ's ambassador seriously: an Eritrean named Z-------s M-----e.  Living proof that when Christ said He came to bring a sword, He meant it.  This man, the living manifestation of Saint Paul, who would open every greeting with things like "Blessed be the name of our God and Father," who talked incessantly about God and sin and Scripture, who believed the end times were here and Jesus could show up any minute, was constantly at odds with his company and family, and terrified of being corrupted by the world: a scrawny, lively, fighting, smiling, kind-eyed financier of a Seventh Day Adventist.  The first man I met who made me feel like I knew an apostle -- and sadly, the last.
 
But this leads me to ask a serious question of myself.  Am I a saint if I don't believe the Gospel -- that I can be saved and be a sinner?  Or in my trying to be like God, am I more like the Devil?

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